The Seneca Falls Wesleyan Chapel hosted the first women’s rights convention in the United States in 1848. Twenty years later, the 14th Amendment was ratified, extending the Constitution’s equal protection to all citizens—defining “citizens” as “male.” In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote.
It took another half century before women received the same right with passage of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY occupies the Wesleyan Chapel and shares the long history of the organized women’s suffrage movement which began there. The area’s connection to empowered women citizens predates these events by centuries.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, made up of the region’s Indigenous Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Tuscarora were matriarchal societies. Women were the leaders. Haudenosaunee Clan Mothers chose the Chief. Chiefs were meant to follow their Clan Mothers’ directives and if a Chief began acting in his own self-interest, Clan Mothers had the authority to remove him.
This overlooked antecedent to the suffrage movement features prominently in a new monument, Ripples of Change, dedicated September 24, 2021, in Seneca Falls. The monument features larger-than-life-size sculptures of four women whose contributions to the suffrage movement have been neglected: Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright, Sojourner Truth and Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Oneida).
“I hope that (onlookers) feel themselves empowered,” Jane DeDecker, the monument’s sculptor, told Forbes.com. “I hope these women inspire other women to feel empowered to make a difference.”
DeDecker worked with Oneida Faithkeeper and artist Diane Schenandoah to sculpt Kellogg’s likeness and accurately depict the cultural elements found throughout the work.
Symbols and Stories
Every detail of the Kellogg figure in Ripples of Change carries significance to the Haudenosaunee.
Begin with the turtle at her feet.
“Having Turtle Island represented was very important because we refer to Mother Earth as Turtle Island, this is where we say Sky Woman landed when we came from the stars,” Diane Schenandoah told Forbes.com. “There are 13 squares on a turtle’s back that represent the 13 moons or 13 cycles of ceremony.”
Monuments are not the traditional way for Haudenosaunee people to honor their ancestors. Given this opportunity, however, they wanted to make the most of it. Twenty-five Haudenosaunee Confederacy citizens including Chiefs, Clan Mothers, academics, historians, active community members and youths served on a special committee to select which Haudenosaunee women would be represented.
“The goal we held in common was thinking about the future generations of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga Nation) and Haudenosaunee youth–how will they feel when they see Laura’s statute, and does she help to tell the untold truth to all non-Indigenous peoples who encounter her,” Michelle Schenandoah, Diane Schenandoah’s daughter and cofounder of Indigenous Concepts Consulting and founder of Rematriation Magazine & Media, offered in prepared remarks read during the monument’s dedication ceremony.
Neal Powless, Indigenous Concepts Consulting’s other cofounder and member of the Onondaga Nation read the prepared speech during the dedication.
Kellogg was chosen not for her work toward the suffrage movement–Kellogg wasn’t a suffragette, her activism centered on rights for fellow Indigenous people–she was selected for the tenacity of her work in trying to secure the sovereign identity for all Native Americans.
“For having been so vocal, Laura was attacked, and illegitimate claims were brought against her by both the U.S. and Canadian governments,” Michelle Schenandoah, who also organized the selection committee, said. “These claims were proven baseless, but the scars of those attacks stayed with her reputation. She became another woman whose story was omitted in history because she spoke the truth and fought for the rights of our people.”
Kellogg was also chosen as representative of the Haudenosaunee’s enlightened approach to women’s roles in governance, and for the example Haudenosaunee set for the suffragettes.
“Walking among the people of the Haudenosaunee, the early suffragists saw a world where Indigenous women were in their full authority and held absolute autonomy over their bodies, their minds, their children, their homes and the lands,” Michelle Schenandoah added. “They also saw women who held the highest position among their people, revered as ‘life givers,’ and women who had the say in their governance as Clan Mothers who have held the position of leaders of our people since time immemorial.”
A quote from Kellogg on the base of her sculpture–along with a Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ land acknowledgement–reads, “And it is a cause of astonishment to us that you white women are only now, in this twentieth century, claiming what has been the Indian woman’s privilege as far back as history traces.”
A basket full of corn, beans and squash rests on Mother Earth in the sculpture.
“These three plants are the sustainers of life, we call them ‘Three Sisters,’ the corn, the beans and the squash,” Diane Schenandoah explains. “They support one another and they also provide a perfect nutrition when combined. You have the stalk of corn that supports beans to grow, the squash covers the ground keeping the weeds from growing up around the corn, so they work in perfect harmony with each other; it’s an example of how we’re to live with each other in peace, taking care and feeding one another.”
A sacred tobacco leaf is shown. The Haudenosaunee did not commercialize their tobacco.
“(Tobacco) was given to us by the Creator specifically for our prayers, so when we need to communicate with the Creator, we burn the sacred tobacco and they say the smoke rises up and carries our words,” Diane Schenandoah said.
Look for strawberries in the Kellogg statue which has been installed along with the others on East Bayard Street overlooking Van Cleef Lake.
“Strawberries are very important because we say this is a heart medicine and this is also the medicine that lines the Milky Way,” Diane Schenandoah said. “When we cross over and go back to Creator’s land, we eat the strawberry on our way home.”
Kellogg’s moccasins, leggings, skirt and cap all further include ornate details specific to the Haudenosaunee, along with the Women’s Nomination Belt she carries. The belt depicts the authority of Clan Mothers to select their nation’s leadership and the role that women have in holding their nations together.
Even her stature and face–Kellogg is depicted robust, broad shouldered–were considered. Schenandoah relied upon the facial features of Onondaga Nation member Kyla Smoke to sculpt Kellogg’s face.
A New Era for Monuments
Fitting that the first comprehensive survey of monuments in America would be released the same month as Ripples of Change was installed. A cataloguing of some 50,000 public statues, memorials and monuments around the nation found them to be overwhelmingly white, male and violent. Confederate generals receive more recognition than women, African Americans or Native Americans.
Ripples of Change doesn’t tip that balance by itself, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“We want her story known, and not just her story, but the mark Haudenosaunee people have made and brought forth in (American) culture–it really is an untold story of how the suffragettes were influenced by Haudenosaunee women,” Diane Schenandoah said.
“We are proud to bring forward the story of Laura Cornelius Kellogg, that she may inspire a new generation of people to continue to find balance between teaching about the histories of the horrific acts of colonizing governments, and the inspirational survival of our culture, our agriculture and ways of peace that will continue to uplift our Haudenosaunee Nations and all people for generations to come,” Michelle Schenandoah added in her remarks at the dedication. “May her voice continue to speak as an advocate for our Haudenosaunee Confederacy, our people and a deep appreciation and understanding that we shall always be present among these lands.”